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Paul Wellings - He's a Journalist Get Him Out of There! 

by Phil Thornton


Paul Wellings was one of those rare creatures; a music journalist who actually wanted to give something back and not simply climb the careerist ladder that lead all the way from the NME to a column in the Sunday Telegraph supplement. Back when I was a hack-bothering pest, (what do you mean I still am a hack-bothering pest?) Paul, in his On The Waterfront guise as Terry Malloy, was the only one to give me any form of encouragement, so it was a pity to see that the right-on rock journal never really utilised his talent and knowledge of black music as much as they could have. Paul has now written two books, ‘”I’m A Journalist Get Me Out Of Here” and “Spend it Like Beckham” (both on Progressive Press) detailing his passions in life; music and football. In Part 1 of this interview we speak to Paul about the NME, Tony Parsons and 2 Step Soul.  


Swine - Your book 'I'm A Journalist get Me Out Of Here' details your time at the NME and Mirror - in many aspects it's a nostalgic hymn to a former age - when passion and personality of writers was cherished and encouraged - what do you feel went wrong at both titles?


PW - I noticed, just like in showbusiness, that in the rock press there are many people with full-on leather jackets but very few people from humble origins, (Sorry, it’s not a working class chip on my shoulder but a whole bag of King Edwards). Plus loads were class enemies from public school backgrounds such as X Moore—who was a good writer (I thought his feature on the Right To Work marchers was one of the better pieces of the time) but he’d never known real struggle. Nowadays there is absolutely nothing worth reading in the music press—it is like toothpaste. But there was a time when the music press mattered to people, and I was part of that. The NME is struggling to reinvent itself in the wake of Britpop and find its place in the midst of a far more aggressive and complicated and widespread pop coverage. It needs a bandwagon to hitch itself to, and Pop Idol ain't it. The Strokes help, but British pop is in a dreadful state.


Mirror - Our most enlightened historian AJP Taylor once said: ‘The Daily Mirror gave an indication as never before of what ordinary people were thinking. The English people at last found their voice.’ I had taken the Mirror from 1977 and proudly still take it to this day. This was the paper that produced arguably the best journalists ever to the street of shame: John Pilger, Paul Foot, Keith Waterhouse, Marj Proops, Paul Routledge and latterly Brian Reade. Nowadays after Piers Morgan's departure and the excellent anti Iraq coverage where Paul Foot and John Pilger were re-employed The Mirror has turned into another downmarket celeb-fest


Swine - Your former mate and best man Tony Parsons has never been one of our chums (Alf Garnett cockney bigot Bushell-a-like squaddy arselicking phoney) - is he not symbolic of the way in which radicalism has been neutered by conformity?


PW - The last time I met Tony Parsons was at a media book-reading at London ’s Festival Hall for his novel, One For My Baby, and asked a question from the floor. I said: ‘Glad you’re a big success, Tony, here to support you tonight. You recently said in The Guardian that you’re a right-wing maniac, xenophobic, materialistic, very New Labour, which sounds to me as tolerant as the next guy as long as the next guy is Alf Garnett. You very kindly gave me a break on the NME and were best man at my wedding—but I always remember you as a good socialist—why the change of heart?’ To which he replied he’s never been a socialist , and he seemed to have selective memory.


He later bounded over to me after the reading and warmly shook my hand and said he’d ring me for lunch. But the call never came. I even tried to get Piers Morgan to reconcile us for lunch but to no avail. Still, I suppose we move on. It is time to let it go. All good things come to an end. I certainly do not want to become some micro-celebrity stalker like Avid Merrion in Bo Selecta. Julie Burchill once told me she thought Tony was a ‘self-obsessed, idiot prat’. I wouldn’t say that, as I will always have a soft spot for Tony (no not Hackney Marsh).


Once I wanted to be Tony. Now I don’t really recognise the friend in wedding photos around our family house and, when my children ask ‘who’s that, Daddy?, I say ‘my friend Tony—I don’t see him any more.’ But after reading his features about ‘dying his hair sun-kissed honey’ and eulogising the Queen Mum and Bush’s war-mongering, I don’t recognise the man. I have nothing in common with him now. I suppose friendship is just people who tell you all the nice things you already knew about yourself anyway. Nowadays my role models are a bit different—genuinely radical people such as Mark Thomas, Mark Steel, Mark Lamarr (in fact anyone called Mark) or Burchill, Pilger, and Foot—the usual suspects.


Swine - During your time at the NME you were one of the few writers who wrote about black music and dance scene in the 80s - what are your memories of this era?


In the early eighties at the NME media bunker, none of the staff seemed to appreciate the greatness of black music and black culture the way I did. They probably thought ‘the Philly Sound’ was a young female horse trotting. I’ve always believed that confidence with a dash of arrogance is a fine quality so it’s fair to say I didn’t think any of them was a better pop writer than me.


I was confident. I knew soul music inside out—I was going to clubs and listening to pirate radio stations that no-one else on the NME was aware of (except for the other great stringer and DJ Dave Dorrell who went on to found the chart-topping group MARRS, famous for ‘Pump Up The Volume’ and at whose house I ended up staying over on occasions and borrowing his books).


If you’ll allow me a further diversion before I get back to the Daily Mirror and Blair, around this time I was involved in some anti-establishment broadcast journalism DJ’ing for LWR (so NOT New Labour), the pirate station that launched Radio 1’s Westwood and Pete Tong, with my own mix of mellow two-step R’n’B music. Although not a great DJ, I was good at chatting on the mike and was a genuine musical connoisseur. We played the rarest grooves from the most dangerous studios in areas like the North Peckham estate and helped launch Soul II Soul to become a mainstream act. Working on rebel radio was a joy.


Pirate radio in the 1980s emerged out of two basic commitments: a belief in the freedom of the airwaves, and a belief in the music. In those early pioneering days the scene was dominated by radio enthusiasts (anoraks) and black music fans (soul heads). The radio pirates shared the same music, language, and behaviour as their audience; through the adverts they shared the same nightclubs, fashions, clothes, even food and cosmetics. Black music pirates had become part of black music culture. Sadly, great music presenters such as Paul ‘Trouble’ Anderson and Trevor Shakes were replaced by more commercial newcomers such as CJ Carlos and Chris Stewart. A climate of confusion, hardship and conflict started to pervade pirate radio. A station would lose a new secret studio location within hours of broadcasting; one pirate hacksaws a rival’s aerial in half; a station owner is assaulted; and internal squabbles create a dozen breakaway groups.


As Tim Westwood said in the great book Rebel Radio, ‘the biggest threat to pirate radio has always been legal radio. If legal radio were to start playing the right music with the right style of presentation, it would mean the death of the pirates. Will the legal stations get it right? I believe they will.’ Westwood went on to get it right on legal Radio 1. But he wasn’t always an Ali G soundalike, 48-year-old son of the Bishop of Peterborough trying to be ‘one of the young hip hop big dogs from behind the walls straight outta Compton ’; he was a brilliant DJ and  journalist. I interviewed him for the Evening Standard and toured the country with him in his Ford Escort Estate alongside on a couple of occasions the mighty Trevor Nelson (who always looked like Miles Davis circa ‘A kind of Blue’) and he sneaked myself and ‘one of the brothers’ from Dalston into a room at the Prestatyn Soul Weekender. I used to stand in the DJ booth with him and learn how to mix, scratch and chat. I also slept round Westwood’s tiny flat in Hammersmith and it was the most minimalist place I’d ever seen—just his boxes of records and about three books. He was famous then for only ever eating sandwiches, smoking spliff, wearing black, and reverse racism—ie, never going out with white women. In those days he supported radical Public Enemy Hip Hop and played the mellowest R’n’B but now he supports reactionary Gangsta Rap which seems to glamorise violence, homophobia and misogyny. Sad.


My career on pirate radio was another extension of my journalism. But to this day I wonder what makes a group of people defy the law and risk heavy fines all for no pay. The clandestine crew of LWR went from a dingy office in Brixton to a cupboard in Crystal Palace . The station was hidden deep in Minder land, broadcasting on 92.5 to listeners as far away as Slough . The station had a pool of 35 DJs, 28 of them regulars, and advertised on air for more; six had daily shows. They had colourful noms de guerres like Lone Ranger, Jasper, Jigs and The Wing Commander, and the standard of professionalism varied wildly. But on LWR you had more freedom than on legitimate stations. Music was its politics to 1.5 million listeners. There was an insinuation if we went legal we would incite London youth to riot—which was crap. The music created our popularity. That and people wanting us to compete. The DJs tried to convince everyone listening that they were the best while they were on. It was the satisfaction of knowing we were number one, of eroding the established stations, of being able to hear LWR anywhere in London and knowing it’s something that founders like the energetic Zak created.


I was trying to pioneer alongside Desi Parkes and Paul Anderson before me the ‘Two Step’ or ‘Speng music’ scene. A typical Two Step crowd was aged 25 upwards and the music was mid-tempo, often heard in illegal house parties (rather than warehouse) parties and dingy little clubs with modest décor and poor lighting, such as The People’s Club in Paddington. Tunes were often spun by ardent collectors making a precarious living as a DJ. The soul was interspersed with Lovers rock.


Aside from this purist scene there were clubs catering for a younger generation such as Gossips on a Friday (the longest-running soul club in the West End ) mixing mellow soul with more upfront hip hop and house. Speng music was usually old American but Rick Clarke was the British face of it. Unfortunately this great British singer never crossed over to mainstream chart success. One of the most popular Two Step anthems was Natalie Cole’s ‘This Will Be’, a guaranteed floor-filler just like Odyssey’s ‘Don’t Tell Me Tell Her’. Around 1984 tracks like Sheree Brown’s ‘It’s a Pleasure’ and 80s Ladies’ ‘Turned on to you’ were the underground sound of the seventies getting some revival pressure. Not forgetting Barbara Streisand’s ‘Guilty’ and Ricky Lee Jones ‘Chuck E’s In Love’ for some crossover. Eddie Harris ‘It’s Allright now’ was my radio theme tune and the JB’s ‘Same Beat’ was moving the crowd. In 1985 Norman Jay’s Good Times Sound and Soul II Soul changed their ‘two step tunes’ for the rare groove seventies sound and in the late eighties we mixed it up with mellow house tunes like Raze’s ‘Break 4 Love’, Izit’s ‘Stories’ and conscious rap such as De La Soul’s ‘Say No Go’. But DJ’s like Desi Parkes, whose house in Forest Gate contained one of the best record collections I’ve ever seen, and Paul Anderson pioneered the seventies sound all along. The Two Step phenomenon is still prevalent today with the sounds of Erykah Badu, Angie Stone, Alicia Keys, Jill Scott and India Arie. Meanwhile, Tony Blair is still listening to his King Crimson albums.


Swine - What of today's generation of music journalists - is there a ghetto mentality that ensures that rock and dance music will always appeal to different class audiences?


PW - But as an old person’s young person, I have to admit—at risk of a terrible review—I’ve never seen the NME look so dumbed-down as it is now. In my view the only decent writers they have currently are old-timers like Dele Fadele and Steven Wells. And they wouldn’t get on a list of the all time greats: Nick Kent, Charles Shaar Murray, Julie Burchill, Tony Parsons, Ian Penman, Danny Baker (even though he claims he based most of his writings on the ‘Best of SJ Perelman’ books) and Paolo Hewitt.


The NME is still a white, middle-class University rag so inevitably it will be guitar-driven - whereas black music comes from a street level so it will inevitably have its own specialist mags like Echoes which I used to write for and the Editor I know and respect - Mr Chris Wells - a musical connoisseur. 


Paul on Beckham, new fans and New Englishness in next month’s issue.






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